Real Time Strategy is a long running and much-respected genre in the pantheon on gaming. Titles like StarCraft, Total War, and Company of Heroes all have massive followings and rank highly on many lists which depict gaming’s all-time greatest achievements. It’s easy to find commonalities between the most illustrious RTS games, from general concepts to intrinsic mechanics, all of the series mentioned above share many features, but ask a console gamer to point out something that most RTS games have in common and they’ll likely point to the fact that they’re pretty my exclusively found on PC. Time and time again developers have tried to port the RTS experience to home consoles, but the majority of attempts have floundered, mostly resulting in nothing but subpar disappointments. In 2004 Microsoft attempted to succeed where all else had failed by enlisting fabled developer Ensemble Studios–creators of the much renowned RTS series Age of Empires–to create a console exclusive RTS for their Xbox 360 platform. The fruit of their labors, titled Halo Wars, launched in 2009 to moderately high critical praise, earning it the title of “best all-time console RTS” in the eyes of many fans and journalists alike. Unfortunately, Halo Wars turned out to be Ensemble’s swansong, as the company folded not long after its release, causing their Halo spinoff to lay dormant for many years. Now in the hands of 343 Industries and co-developers Creative Assembly, Halo Wars 2 is primed and ready to pick up where its forerunner left off.
The events of the original Halo Wars took place 21 years prior to those of Halo: Combat Evolved, and the game concluded with the crew of the UNSC Spirit of Fire entering cryo-sleep. Skip ahead 28 years, right past the events of all five mainline Halo titles, and we arrive at the starting point of Halo Wars 2. Awoken from their slumber and completely unaware of the result of the Human-Covenant war, the Spirit of Fire’s crew–including Captain James Cutter and Professor Anders–are flung directly into conflict. The first thing you’ll take note of when playing Halo Wars 2 is how fantastic the game’s cutscenes look. Amazing facial animation, great voice acting, and all around immaculate presentation set the stage for what should be an epic space opera. Much of your first hour of play will be spent watching Blur Studio’s stunning CGI, and while enjoyable, the cutscenes unfortunately set a standard for story telling that the rest of the game simply cannot uphold. Cutscenes are few and far between after the game’s introductory chapters, leaving most of the remaining dialog to be dispensed during pre-mission loading screens. The dialog during the cutscenes is crisp and delivered with emotion, but the rest of the game’s dialog is slow, disjointed, and lacks enthusiasm. The game’s narrative, much like its voice acting, is inconsistent. Early scenes shed light on an interesting setting and a formidable foe, but the story quickly loses traction. Without entering spoiler territory let’s just say that the game’s ending is akin to Halo 2’s, meaning there’s a cliff, and you’ll be hanging off of it, unsatisfied, with proper resolution nowhere in sight.
Back in 2009 Ensemble Studios managed to create an RTS control scheme for the console controller that was simple yet intuitive. 343 Industries has taken their ground work and, well, simply retread over it. For better or worse, Halo Wars 2 acts and feels much like its predecessor, meaning that it’s easy to acclimate to, but the systems in place feel as limited now as they did 8 years ago. The D-Pad acts as a shortcut menu, allowing the player to quickly jump between bases and units, but getting the camera over to an area of the map where you currently don’t have friendly units or structures is tedious. There are multiple ways to select units, both those currently on-screen and those out of your immediate view, but it can still be a hassle to divvy up your squad or select certain units quickly in the heat of battle. The game’s control systems function, and for those who have little-to-no experience with PC RTS they may even seem above average, but players who have any prior experience with the genre won’t be able to shake the feeling that their control over the battlefield is limited.
Unlike its predecessor, Halo Wars 2 will launch simultaneously on both the Xbox One and PC, but it’s clear as day that this game was designed first and foremost as a console experience. Base construction locations are pre-determined, there is next-to-no tactical approach to the creation of additional structures, and resource gathering is essentially automated. There are an interesting amount of units for both the Human and Alien sides, including some all new ones making their debut in Halo Wars 2, but again, as with most aspects of the game, micro-management of units is limited. The game employs a rock-paper-scissors approach seen in many RTS titles, but the issue is Halo Wars 2 is so rigid in its rule set that it doesn’t allow for nearly as much customization in its approach when compared to contemporary RTS games. All aspects of the gameplay experience are at least serviceable, but none truly excel, leaving it to often feel as if the game is lacking substance.
The game’s campaign features a total of 12 levels which can be tackled solo or cooperatively. Playing on the Normal or Heroic difficulty settings will result in many of the missions only lasting around 25-35 minutes, meaning the campaign should last you between 6-8 hours on your first playthrough. The missions themselves are quite lackluster and feel formulaic rather quickly, as there are only a few scenarios, most of which get repeated multiple times. There are missions where you have to defend your predetermined bases for a set amount of time from waves of enemies; missions where you’re playing a game of Domination with the A.I. where each side is attempting to hold certain plots on the map; missions where you must simply explore outwards and defeat all foes, and a mission of tower defense, complete with arrows on the mini-map showing the routes enemies will take. The Halo aesthetic lends itself well to the game’s world, as sights and sounds emit a familiar and classic vibe, but very few of the levels actually stand apart from each other, making the experience a forgettable blur.
On the multiplayer front Halo Wars 2 has a decent suite of modes, and those looking to get some extra practice can hop into the Skirmish playlist and do battle with A.I. opponents until they’re ready to test their mettle against human foes. When making the jump into PVP players have the option to choose between 1v1, 2v2, and 3v3 battles across several different match types, including the typical Deathmatch and Domination variations. Where the game will find trouble is in keeping its audience’s attention, as the over-simplified RTS experience doesn’t exactly correlate with tremendous replayability. Extremely restrictive build paths and a shallow pool of tactical options means that most multiplayer modes will get stale rather quickly. The Blitz mode, which combines card-based strategy elements into the RTS fold is a great addition, and easily the game’s best innovation, but whether or not this mode alone will be enough to keep Halo Wars 2’s multiplayer afloat remains to be seen.
Many will argue that Halo Wars 2 can proudly attest to being the greatest RTS game to ever grace a console, and I wouldn’t necessarily argue against that sentiment, but at the same time, I’d say that anyone who’s making that claim is clearly trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. Sure, Halo Wars 2 may trump its console-based competition, but when said competition is mostly comprised of disappointing and subpar titles, is that really an achievement worth bragging about? When comparing Halo Wars 2 to its PC exclusive brethren its lack of depth, overly simplistic systems, and shallow design philosophy quickly become apparent. Strip away its stunning cut scenes and its Halo setting and it’s exposed as not much more than a merely average RTS game that’s clearly being held back by the fact that it’s been tethered to a platform that has never, and will never be able to squeeze the full potential out of a Real Time Strategy title.